Vail-area avalanche danger is ‘considerable’ right now
Terrain choice is crucial when avalanche danger is elevated
Avalanche danger in the central Rockies could remain elevated for the next several days. The danger was listed as “moderate” on Saturday, when an avalanche near Muddy Pass claimed the lives of two Gypsum men. A third man managed to dig himself out of the slide and alert authorities.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s Monday forecast for the Vail/Summit County area was listed as “considerable” for areas both above and below timberline. According to the center’s website, that level of danger means “Dangerous avalanche conditions.” That rating states that “Cautious route-finding and conservative decision-making” are essential.
Spencer Logan, a forecaster at the Boulder-based center, said avalanche conditions right now involve a couple of significant factors.
The first is new snow at or near the surface of the snowpack. That snow can settle out, which means elevated avalanche danger comes and goes fairly quickly, Logan said.
But that avalanche danger can rise and fall as storms roll in and out of the area, with sunny days in between.
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The other factor is the layers of weak snow closer to the ground. “That won’t change much,” over the next several days, Logan said. In fact, that weak layer could pose a danger into the spring melt, he added.
Snowpack hard to forecast
But, given variations in weather, it’s hard to predict just how snowpack will behave.
“Our forecasts are only 48 hours (in the future) for a reason,” Logan said. “We can only speculate about what will happen” weeks or months into the future.
Logan said parts of the Vail/Summit County area have a deep enough snowpack to produce large avalanches, but some slide zones won’t break until something triggers a slide.
Logan said at the moment backcountry skiers and other users should avoid crossing, or crossing beneath, steep slopes.
And, he added, it’s always a good idea to check the avalanche condition forecast on the center’s website.
At Paragon Guides in Edwards, Donny Shefchik said statewide reports are a good start, but only a good start, for backcountry users.
A general forecast “doesn’t mean every spot is considerable or moderate (danger),” Shefchik said.
Knowing terrain is crucial
Elevation can make a big difference, as can other factors, he added.
“I’ve gone out on days when (the danger) has been considerable or extreme,” Shefchik said. Choosing terrain wisely is by far the most important factor planning a backcountry trip.
“You can go out on a considerable (danger) day. If you stay away from 25- or 30-degree slopes, there’s no reason you can’t be out there.
Shefchik said all backcountry trips should include looking at weather, snowpack and terrain. Of the three, people only have a choice in what terrain they choose to cross.
Skiing a 20-degree slope is roughly equivalent to skiing a blue run on a ski resort, Shefchik said. But, he added, variations in even moderate terrain can create areas where slides are more likely.
While local guides and seasoned users are familiar with local terrain, “We don’t know every spot,” Shefchik said. “We stay away from them.”
Besides looking at the terrain where you’re going, Shefchik said it’s also essential to look up for steeper slopes above your path.
While Shefchik is confident to go into the backcountry under almost any conditions, he added that he’s become more conservative over the years.
“I’ve been wow’ed many times,” by nearby slides, he said. “You hear that sickening ‘whomp,’” and it tends to make a person more cautious, he added.
But, he said, “That doesn’t mean you can’t go on Vail Pass and ski up the train to the Shrine Mountain Inn.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at email@example.com or 970-748-2930.